Virus control tests solidarity of South Asia bloc

By Long Xingchun

With the coronavirus spreading around the world, the number of infected cases in South Asia continues to rise. This led Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a video conference of all countries that are member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) on March 15, in an attempt to develop a joint strategy to battle the coronavirus in the region, India’s The Economic Times reported. Presidents or prime ministers of seven countries attended the meeting, but Pakistan was represented by Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health, Zafar Mirza.
At the conference, leaders of the bloc reached a consensus on a common strategy to fight the virus. Modi said India was assembling a rapid response team of doctors and specialists, along with test kits and other equipment for SAARC countries. He proposed COVID-19 emergency fund to be used by SAARC members and pledged $10 million.
It was the first SAARC member states’ conference since the 2014 summit in Kathmandu, Nepal. Founded in 1985, SAARC is a regional intergovernmental organization that aims to promote economic development and regional integration among member states which include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Due to frictions between India and Pakistan, their regional cooperation falls into stagnation. In its nearly 35 years of existence, only 18 summits have been held and the organization has not been paid great attention in the international community. Its 19th summit, which was scheduled to be held in Pakistan, was called off after the September 18, 2016 attack on a military base in Uri, Kashmir. Yet, SAARC has achieved some progresses in the domain of non-traditional security issues, such as dealing with natural disasters and battling epidemics. Controlling the coronavirus could revive regional cooperation among SAARC member states.
Regional cooperation is needed amid the COVID-19 outbreak in South Asia, where fewer cases have been reported than in Europe. Most countries in the region however are underdeveloped with poor healthcare systems. Many don’t have a sufficient stockpile of medical supplies to deal with the potential spread of the highly infectious virus. Many South Asian people lack awareness of disease prevention. It will be very difficult to deal with a widespread outbreak of COVID-19 in local communities, which could result in a great number of deaths.
South Asian countries should learn a lesson from what Europe has been through. When China was in an all-out battle against COVID-19 over the past few months, European countries, and the US, did little other than issue a travel ban on visitors coming from China.
They failed to undertake timely preventive measures and allowed mass gatherings to continue and let people travel without limitation. This has led to the outbreak of COVID-19 among member states of the European Union.
The flow of people between South Asian countries such as India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh remains active, with many people from outside the region also frequently traveling to countries in the region. South Asia poses a similar risk of virus transmission that Europe faces. Unlike Europe, where countries closed borders, South Asia should be applauded for timely regional cooperation. SAARC is facing several obstacles, including the ongoing poor relations between India and Pakistan.
By not attending Modi’s conference call, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan revealed his distrust of India. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani suggested India, as a member of both SAARC and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, coordinate between the two organizations and check whether China’s experience in dealing with the coronavirus could be applied in South Asian countries. Ghani’s proposal would be conductive in helping SAARC countries cooperate on a larger scale, share greater experience and gain supplies. New Delhi may be concerned the suggestion undermines its image as a leader in this region.
As of Sunday, the outbreak has escalated in South Asia. Countries in the region have introduced drastic new controlling measures.
The India-initiated regional cooperation will likely contribute to curbing the spread of the disease, but may not save SAARC. In recent years, New Delhi has been vigorously promoting the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, in which Pakistan is not a member state.
The intention is to isolate Islamabad and marginalize SAARC, which may prove to be the wrong move at exactly the wrong time.
–The Daily Mail-Global Times news exchange item